Something was happening inside Dorrigo Evans as he watched. Here were two hundred men watching three men destroying a man whom they all knew, and yet they did nothing. And they would continue to do nothing. Somehow, they had assented to what was happening, they were keeping time with the drumming, and Dorrigo was first among them, the one who arrived too late and done too little and now somehow agreed with what was happening. He did not understand how this had come to be, only that it had.
For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North, Richard Flanagan
A book I selected to fill the Man Booker/Pulitzer Prize winner category from my 2015 Read Harder Challenge, this was one of those rarest of books – one that not only educated me or challenged me, but actually moved me. Seriously, I had to stop reading a few times on the bus to avoid actual tears. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a manipulative tearjerker and you don’t need to read it with tissues, but there are moments…
Damn, is it dusty in here?
The Narrow Road is a very ‘literary’ book which may put some people off (it has been described by certain commentators as ‘pretentious and stupid‘ or ‘all bite and no chew‘), but I couldn’t disagree more – I loved it.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North – 5 out of 5 Stars
Why this book?
As I said above, this book was picked to fit a category – Richard Flanagan won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road – but I also had another reason for choosing the book, namely my Grandfather. I’ve talked about him on this blog previously – a Brit, he was in hospital injured by shrapnel in the leg when the Allies surrendered to the Japanese in the Pacific. He, along with 85,000 Brits, Australians and Indians were taken prisoner. From the stories he told, I knew he was taken and kept in Changi. As far as I knew, this was the extent of it – I understood he spent his time working in the Changi prison; indeed the stories I remember him telling were plenty harrowing but they were tailored to be age appropriate.
However on the weekend I caught up with my Uncle and Aunt, and was startled to learn that my Grandfather was not restricted to Changi, and in fact had worked on the Thai-Burma railway, specifically in Hellfire Pass. Compared to the Thai-Burma Railway, Changi was known comparatively as ‘heaven’. I kinda felt bad for not knowing this already, but was reassured by my Uncle that my Grandfather actually kept large amounts of his time as a POW to himself, and only started opening up about certain things more recently.
Superficially this book is simply about a man, Alwyn Dorrigo Evans. It bounces around through Dorrigo’s life from flitting through childhood, through marriage, touching on his infidelities, and military service in WWII before focusing on the two major events in his life. One is Dorrigo’s an affair with the beautiful Amy, the young wife of Dorrigo’s uncle. The other is Dorrigo’s time as a POW in Burma working the Thai Burma railroad.
Looking deeper at the book, I think Flanagan has written an exploration of a contrasts; the all consuming love of Dorrigo’s affair with Amy vs his unsatisfying relationships with anyone else, Dorrigo’s deeply flawed and uncertain hero vs the duty-bound and monstrous Japanese guards, even the beauty of Japanese culture expressed through its elegant haiku poetry vs the horror inflicted by the Japanese in the name of service to the Emperor. Dorrigo struggles to find his place amidst these contrasts, and he gives the impression of an actor simply playing a part as leader, as doctor, as husband. Despite his lack of certainty and his self-doubts, he is a true hero of this story.
The novel is non-traditional in structure; the narrative jumps around almost at random – particularly early on. In the space of a few chapters we flick from Dorrigo’s childhood, to a moment with Amy, then to his post war life without almost pause. It eventually settles into the two main parts of the story – his love affair and the war, but still requires careful reading so you don’t get lost in Flanagan’s very poetic writing. It doesn’t help that Flanagan uses a similar punctuation style to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – that is, non-existent beyond simple commas and periods. Dialogue is unmarked and appears simpler, plaintive because of it.
I found this plaintive, mournful, and poetic writing style was very effective. When covering the affair with Amy it creates a melancholic distance from the passion which (whilst arguably cools the heat somewhat) enables it to be exceptionally romantic. Dorrigo’s forbidden love is written simply, starkly, beautifully. It also creates a subtle distance from the mistreatment and monstrosity of the war, creating a kind of echo chamber for the horrors such that they resonate and intensify. This contrast, this starkness, means the story stays with you well past putting it down.